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  • Writer's pictureMerle Mullins

The Chemistry of Anger

There are two nervous systems in the human body.

1. Parasympathetic

2. Sympathetic

How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Affects How We Feel

The parasympathetic nervous system is what we should be using 96% of the time. The parasympathetic nervous system drips serotonin and dopamine into the brain and blood stream.

Serotonin is a hormone which helps us to think in balanced ways, and helps us to see the other person's point of view. Serotonin makes it easier to "put ourselves in the other's shoes." Serotonin makes it easier to achieve a mutual understanding, where each person understands what the other is saying and how they are feeling.

Dopamine works alongside serotonin. Dopamine is the hormone which helps us to appreciate and to be happy about the little in life. For example, noticing that a loved one has smiled at us, or enjoying the scenery while walking along a stream or a river. It's the feeling we give and we receive when we thank a service member for their service. Dopamine is the hormone behind the joy or happiness that you feel when a child takes their first steps.

Dopamine and serotonin create positive feedback loops in the brain, which help us establish and strengthen relationships, choose the good in our daily actions, and create harmonious environments where we can thrive.

The Sympathetic Nervous System - Our Fight or Flight Response.

The Sympathetic nervous system is supposed to be activated when our life or someone else's life is in danger. it is frequently referred to as the "fight or flight" response.

Despite how rarely our life or someone else's is actually in danger, we have evolved to be able to trigger the sympathetic nervous system in an instant. Perhaps this is because those who could react faster, leaping into survival mode to run or fight, survived more often among our ancestors than those whose sympathetic nervous system did not activate as quickly. If you're slow to react when a lion is racing towards you, or a tree is falling on top of a loved one, you or they might not survive.

For most of us, these life or death situations are rare. In fact, we may only experience them (if we're lucky) a few times in our entire lives. However, our sympathetic nervous system is always there, ready to be activated, to help us fight (or flee) for our lives. So, with relatively little provocation, the sympathetic nervous system can start dripping (or dumping) adrenaline and noredrenaline into our brains and blood stream.

When this happens, our attention narrows and becomes locked into the target of our anger. Soon we can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional hormones are released, including cortisol, a hormone designed to keep us in a heightened state of arousal until the perceived threat has been dealt with. Our heart beat increases by at least 3-4 beats every fifteen seconds. Blood rushes to our limbs and sometimes to our face. We're now ready to fight.

With these hormones on board, we begin exhibiting fight or flight behaviors. We may lash out directly, or we may display more passive aggressive behaviors. These hormones can also trigger extreme appetites for food, alcohol or drugs.

The Sympathetic Nervous System Affects What We Feel, Think and Believe

The sympathetic nervous system controls what we are feeling, thinking and believing. When these hormones are in our brain and blood stream, we are more likely to feel contempt for situations and for people. We tend to put the people and situations which are the "target" or "threat" into a very negative category in our brain. If we're not careful, we can begin relating to that person or that situation as if all that they are is our negative judgment of them. We'll likely develop, very rapidly, 4-6 negative adjectives for that person or that situation.

Stonewalling is a behavior where we don't allow for anything or anyone to change our opinions, course of action or behavior. We don't take input from the other person, assigning a negative meaning to all that they say and do. Whenever we assign meaning to another person's actions, or to what the other person is saying, we are usually wrong. This is especially true when we're trying to evaluate another person's words or actions through the lens of our sympathetic nervous system.

Most of us know that assigning meaning to another's words or behavior is wrong and ineffective, and yet we think, behave and feel as if we are right in our judgement of others when we are angry with them. The angrier we are, the more sure we are right.

When Anger Becomes a Habit

Like other pathways in the brain, the sympathetic nervous system can become faster and stronger with repeated use. Our sympathetic nervous system will come to recognize and respond to familiar situations which triggered the response in the past. These situations can include the drive across town to visit our in-laws, having a spouse ask us a question about finances, or receiving negative feedback at work. If these situations resulted in a sympathetic response in the past, our sympathetic nervous system is primed and ready to deploy a fight or flight response again.

This would be useful if we were dealing with actual life or death situations repeatedly, but in fact, it would be better if in each of these situations, we could approach the present moment as being unique, and address it as an opportunity to love the other person and understand their point of view.

If this seems difficult, or you or a loved one are repeatedly engaging in active or passive anger, stonewalling, or other self-defeating patterns of behavior, it may be valuable to speak with an anger management counselor. Taking the time to talk through the situations that trigger a sympathetic response, and to establish positive practical and cognitive routines, can help us to de-escalate our sympathetic response, and spend more of our time enjoying the balanced connections and simple joys of sharing our lives together.

My calendar is up to date. Feel free to schedule an appointment for anger management counseling at your convenience.

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